Open source policy holds promise, but agencies must do more — experts

DHS CTO Michael Hermus at the 2016 Red Hat Government Symposium.

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The federal IT community by-and-large recognizes the value of open source code, but there is work still to be done to implement the practice in government and realize its potential, experts said Wednesday.

“I don’t have to stand up on stage anymore and tout the benefits of open source as a development model. It’s a given,” Paul Smith, senior vice president and general manager for Red Hat North America Public Sector, said at the 2016 Red Hat Government Symposium, produced by FedScoop

This increasing acknowledgement of the value of open source can be seen in new Office of Management and Budget policy finalized this year, Department of Homeland Security CTO Michael Hermus said. The policy establishes a pilot program where agencies must release at least 20 percent of their newly developed custom code as open source.

[Read more: OMB finalizes policy on open source code from agencies]

The policy is great, Hermus said, noting “this is a sign of the fact that the current administration and the current community is really pushing forward in this direction.”

But he also acknowledged, “we still have a lot of work in implementing and adopting this and figuring out how it all works.”

In particular, Hermus noted, “one of the things I think we’re concerned about is saying ‘just open source 20 percent of your code’ is not a good idea right? It really needs to be much more thoughtful than that.”

“Percentage of code” is not really a good metric, he said, recommending “people… take a look at systems or even modules or libraries of usable functionality that add value.”

He said government is also going to have to work on building the community around its open source work.

“Without that community you can’t just stick it out there and hope magic happens — you have to govern it and manage and harness that community out there,” he said.

Tim Yeaton, senior vice president of Red Hat’s infrastructure business group, also noted earlier in the conference that open source communities are crucial to driving innovation.

“The innovation that happens in software today now is almost entirely born out of these open collaborative upstream communities,” he said.

Yeaton said agencies or companies trying to move to adopting agile methodology in particular benefit from using open source code others have shared before them. There are more than a million open source projects in the world today, Yeaton said.

“If you’re trying to prove out a concept in six weeks and you’re inventing all of that code from scratch — it’s kind of hard to do that,” he said. “What you find a lot of customers doing is they’re actually using some of those million open source components to actually do that prototyping. So open source isn’t just driving innovation… it’s changing the development model.”

Similarly, Hermus said one of the things his agency’s mission needs from open source is “improved time to market of those mission capabilities.”

“We need those guys out there on the frontlines to get the things they need to do their job as quickly as possible, not to get hung up in four years of planning and then procurement,” Hermus said.

He also noted that needs are going to change over time, so technology has to be agile enough to pivot when necessary.

“The open source ecosystem really provides a foundation there,” he said.

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Applications & Software, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Departments, open source, Tech
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